Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The politics of water




An absolute deluge covered my area of the Midwest throughout the month of June. 

Flooding has been longstanding and in a few areas, severe. In Indiana alone, it is estimated that there will be a nearly half billion dollar loss in crop yield this year due to flooding.

"You all have had more water than you can handle," said the owner of a hotel I checked into in the Southwest last week. "While we've been begging for water."

Indeed, one need only turn on the news to see stories about the severe drought, wildfires, and water shortages wrought upon the Southwest, especially Southern California. I wish I could say otherwise, but the news wails out an alarm of a looming crisis, a crisis I feel that will evoke familiar responses from many of our more conservative political leaders. 

"There is no problem."
"The science is not conclusive."
"This is a liberal hoax designed to swindle  us out of more tax dollars."
"I just turned on my faucets. Everything is fine."
"Why don't you people move to where the water is?"

Sound familiar?

Like it or not, we are facing an impending water crisis. Demand from a growing population cannot be met by current infrastructure. The color-coded map at the top of this article is from the International Water Management Institute in 2010. Even then the Southwest United States was marked as being an area of "physical water scarcity" with more years of drought predicted for California. To be sure, many, including California Governor Jerry Brown, have seen this coming and have worked to offer solutions. Among these solutions is conservation, limiting water consumption in affected areas. While that is indeed a necessary step, the nature of water adds a further dimension to the issue. Water is not a luxury item. No living thing in our world can exist without it. Therefore...

Who decides where the water goes? And how is that determination made?

Last week, a bill ostensibly meant to address water issues in California, passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Only five Democrats voted for the bill and the measure is opposed by the Obama administration. As the linked article states, "fundamentally, the legislation steers more water towards agriculture." While this benefits farmers and business interests in the central area of the state, this action appears to be taken at the expense of Southern and Northern California. In other words, businesses over people. This has already instigated a considerable amount of political sparring. "Republican Rep. Tom McClintock blamed the state’s water shortages on the “nihilistic vision of the environmental left,” while GOP colleague Rep. Ken Calvert blamed the “don’t-do-anything faction” and Rep. Devin Nunes contended that “continuously, nearly all the Democrats have said no” to water solutions.
"In turn, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney said Republicans were “recycling old, bad ideas” that would “further disrupt” the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and his Democratic colleague Rep. Mike Thompson charged the bill “makes a bad situation even worse.” The Obama administration has threatened a veto."

Again, how is water distribution decided? In California, at least for agricultural and industrial purposes, that is decided by the state government.  Frances Spivey-Weber, Vice-Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, explains that water allotment for farmers is most often based on who has been in the fields the longest. "Junior farmers" will receive less water, especially during time of drought such as this, than others who have been at it for much longer. As for municipalities, that is left to the local governments. Spivey-Weber cautions in the linked video however, that if satisfactory agreements cannot be made, it will be handled in the courts.

You can almost hear the shuddering cries of "water courts!" from the same "big government" boogeymen that brought us "death panels" in relation to healthcare.

Be that as it may, serious questions remain on the side of the private sector. During a time of droughts and changing climate, can major corporations continue to freely bottle and distribute water such as Aquafina and Dessani? These bottled waters are merely tap water taken from ground sources. The difference in taste comes the disinfection process. While public works disinfect via chlorine, corporations choose more expensive methods, such as ultraviolet light and ozonation. Aside from those methods, the bottling companies are basically selling you your own tap water.

While that may elicit faint risibility and a smiling shrug of caveat emptor, can we afford to keep doing it? As a social media brouhaha of 2013 indicated, corporate involvement also suggests another possibility.

Two years ago, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board at Nestle, found himself having to untangle a mess where he was portrayed as saying that drinking water was not a human right and that he supports privatizing access to water. He denies such claims and in doing so, rather succinctly cuts to the heart of the issue:

"The reality is we are running out of water to grow food, for households, for energy generation and for industry. This is not a problem to be dealt with tomorrow. It is a problem that every single one of us should care about today. If nothing is done we will run out of water faster than we will run out of oil."

Whether that is corporate PR spin or not, it remains a fact. The problems in California are harbingers for what lies ahead of us. Policies will need creating, restrictions will be placed, and sacrifices must be made by us all. If such "big government" regulation scares you, then what is the alternative? Privitization? Forgive me if I am suspicious that such a system would afford fairness and equity to any save an elite few.

Water access is a public issue. It affects us all. It requires attention sooner rather than later.


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